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Putting a price on student voice

Brooklyn students vote on school budget priorities
New York Teacher
Pat Arnow
A 9th-grader at Gotham Professional Arts Academy works on a poster to promote student involvement in the budget process.

It’s not every day that high school students get to decide how to spend $500,000.

At a mid-March meeting of student government leaders at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, students talked about the options for spending this sum to improve the building they share with Acorn Community HS: Should they renovate the dance room, repair the gym floor or pave a section of the school parking lot to create a basketball court?

The two schools in Prospect Heights are one of two campuses in Brooklyn that are taking part in a pilot project in participatory budgeting in which students get to vote on spending priorities to meet building needs. The project, sponsored and funded by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, is part of a movement to promote greater community and student involvement in the local budget process.

The opportunity came at the right moment: In September, Gotham — one of the UFT’s 31 United Community Schools — relocated from Bedford-Stuyvesant to the building Acorn has occupied since 1996. Students from the two schools occupy different floors, but share the library, cafeteria and gym.

Marian, an 11th-grader and student government member at Gotham, said she hopes the budget process leads to programs and activities “that make us feel more like a community.”

“We were all thinking about collaboration and being intentional in creating a community,” said Shelby Mitchell, the social worker at Gotham, who first heard about the project through one of the school’s community partners, Neighbors in Action.

Student government leaders have met twice a week since January to manage the project, which has taught them about both cost analysis and community building.

“It has really increased student voice,” said J.M. Ruby, the Gotham chapter leader and a social studies teacher.

Student government leaders had access to experts at the Participatory Budget Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes engaging ordinary citizens in the budget process, to guide them as they decided what projects were feasible and affordable enough to place on the ballot.

The votes were counted on March 22. Students want the capital funds spent on bathroom renovations, a basketball court and a computer lab upgrade. The schools are assessing which two projects are affordable based on cost estimates. The students also voted to spend $10,000 from the principals’ discretionary funds to support after-school programs in fashion design, hip-hop dancing and computer coding.

“It’s been inspiring to see student council members take such ownership over this process,” said Allison Brown, the community school director at Gotham. “I hope it shows the students that they have a voice and that the community is responsive when they become engaged and speak up about their needs.”